Will electric trucks take charge?

This is the final in a blog series on how to decarbonise land freight by 2050. All the blogs are based on our report Roadmap to climate-friendly land freight and buses in Europe, leading up to a public debate, Zero emissions land freight, taking place in Brussels on 27 September.

After publishing our report on climate-friendly freight and buses in June, three months later seems soon to release an update. But things are moving fast. Cummins released a concept electric truck at the end of August. BYD has ramped up its offering of smaller electric trucks in the US and Asia. Tesla is due to unveil a long-haul electric truck in Los Angeles on 26 October. 

Already, Tesla’s big bet on battery electric vehicles has transformed the automotive sector. Tesla has shown that battery cars which customers desire can be produced at reasonable cost and, last - but not least - carmakers planning to penetrate the market in a serious way need to help roll out charging infrastructure. European manufacturers are scrambling to catch up.

But Tesla’s announcement of a battery electric highway truck left many die-hard fans head-scratching. Conventional wisdom is that a 40 tonne long-haul electric truck would be too expensive, too heavy and ill-suited to truckers’ operational needs.

It remains to be seen if Tesla can disrupt truck-making. But it’s worth pointing out why the idea can’t be dismissed. First, Tesla isn’t the only company saying battery trucks make sense. Mercedes announced a 26 tonne delivery truck last year, and MAN, a Volkswagen subsidiary, is also working on a battery truck. But the most clear and compelling summary of why battery trucks might actually make a lot of sense comes in a series of blogs from Auke Hoekstra, senior advisor at the University of Eindhoven.

First and foremost is cost. Road transport is dominated by cost. If battery trucks are more expensive than diesel trucks they won’t succeed. Tesla’s battery pack costs are rumoured to be below $160/kWh. And that’s before factoring in the massive scale effects of its gigafactory. Bloomberg and McKinsey expect battery pack costs to drop below $100 by 2030, while projections from the ICCT are in a similar range. Put simply, between the mid 2010s and mid 2020s, battery costs will roughly halve - and the additional contribution of the new generation of post-lithium ion batteries coming on stream is still very difficult to quantify. And that’s not the full story, even on batteries: truck-builders may lease rather than sell the battery back, delivering day-to-day energy cost savings even more directly to the transport operator. 

Doing away with the engine, after-treatment, and the complex transmission that comes with diesel all yielding big ticket savings. Battery trucks run on super-efficient electric engines with almost no maintenance costs. According to Hoekstra, battery trucks would be around one third cheaper to run. Knowing a trucker spends around 30-40k on diesel every year, it’s clear from his work that the big savings are on the energy side:

A battery truck won’t be as heavy as often feared. Yes, the battery could add 4-5t tonnes of weight, but this needs to be set against the removal of the diesel engine, together with weight savings on the powertrain side. Combined with the significant opportunities for light-weighting (e.g. using more aluminium or carbon fibre), the weight of the batteries could be far less of a problem. 

The big remaining question is: how suited to truckers’ needs will battery trucks be? As the update to T&E’s study will show, 48% of truck journeys in the EU are shorter than 300km (the update will be released on 27 Sept). For longer journeys, companies would need charging stations to be installed on their premises or in highway service stations. If the rechargers are big enough (up to one megawatt), charging times would be quick. Lack of this infrastructure will initially limit battery trucks to predictable routes, ideally returning to the same base. But, if the economics are favourable, electric trucks will start to gain market share quickly. And, if politicians remove uncertainty regarding the investment timeframe for charging stations, the pace of penetration will pick up. 
All of this suggests a much brighter future for electric trucks. To date, truck manufacturing has been a very conservative business, even more wedded to diesel than car manufacturing. Truck-makers have had few reasons to develop alternative powertrains. That means policy support will be needed to bring road freight emissions to zero.  

The EU is preparing CO2 regulation for trucks and buses. Its focus is – and should be – efficiency. A recent report by the ICCT showed trucks could be around 43% more efficient with a reduced total cost of ownership. But the CO2 regulation must be forward-looking and support trucks and buses with zero tailpipe emissions. It can do so in three ways:

- zero-rate electric and other zero-emission (capable) vehicles
- avoid multipliers (supercredits) for battery vehicles and instead extend the planned Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) mandate for cars and vans to also include trucks and buses, and third
- use the EU’s post 2020 budget to electrify, or further electrify, freight transport systems. 
Alongside the points above, progress on three additional initiatives is needed. First, the EU needs to adopt the Commission’s proposed toll discount for zero emission vehicles (already set out in the draft revision of the EuroVignette Directive); second, ensure Europe’s procurement authorities lead the way on zero emission transport with a progressive revision of the Clean Vehicles Directive; and third, reform the Energy Tax Directive to increase Europe’s minimum diesel taxes. 

Put this six-part package in place and the EU will have the world’s most progressive framework for zero emission heavy duty vehicles. And that is exactly what Europe needs. I admire Elon Musk, but I want to see Europe – and its world-leading truckmakers – win the race for zero emission road transport.

How is the European team shaping up? To hear the views of Europe’s main players - from the makers of electric road systems, batteries and hydrogen, to regulators, operators, and technology experts - come to Zero Emissions Land Freight on Wed 27 Sept, a Nordic Council of Ministers event, in partnership with T&E. There you can decide if Europe is positioning itself to lead – or fall behind.


Anthonie  S.'s picture


I read a lot about economics but too little about the technical side of the story.
Compare the energy content of a battery pack with for instance 1000 liter diesel and you will be scratching your head too I suppose. Dream on.

Auke Hoekstra's picture


Dear Anthonie,

I have gone so far as to have a student and a group of experts (in and outside of industrie) estimate current size and weight of the batteries (with and without packs), compare that with current batteries in different car models, and model the results in 3D.

Maybe your gut feeling does not take into account that the electric motor is at least 2.5x more efficient you would be talking about the equivalent of 250-300 liter.

For more details I would ask you to look at chapter 3, e.g. under the heading "3,5 ton should be enough to propel a 40 ton truck for 400 km". Of course I'm open for more detailed follow up questions but I can assure you that I'm past the pie-in-the-sky dreaming you seem to assume.

Auke Hoekstra

Anthonie S.'s picture


Energy content: Li-ion 0,1 kWh/kg; Diesel 10 kWh/l ~ 12,5 kWh/kg ; factor 125!?1000 l diesel about 10.000 kWh. Calculate what that means for a Li-ion battery pack!
With the current battery technology: dream on. Ok these are estimates and there are efficiencies involved but then again....

Anthonie S.'s picture


We are talking about long haul trucks. Some tractor/semi trailer combinations carry 1500 liter diesel. So I was on the safe side with my 1000 l. With an average fuel consumption of 1 in 3 they can do 4500 km!!! Suppose efficiency of diesel engine somewhere between 40 and 50 %, say 45%, at is best that is true. Say efficiency of electric motor between 80 and 95 %, say 87,5. Conclusion; electric motor twice as efficient, not 2,5. Suppose we have the best Li-ion batteries with 0,2 kWh/kg instead of 0,1. 1500 l means 15000 kWH times 45% means 6750 kWh on diesel and of course there is the efficiency of the transmission but that is in the region of90 %=> 6075 kWh. For electric drive that would mean more than 30 tons of batteries!!!!!!!!!!!!! If we do take into account the efficiencies of the elctric motor and the transmission and the batteries etc. it would be even more. Yes if you limit the range to 400 km it would indeed be some 3 tons. But we were talking about long haul trucks and it is completely unthinkable to have to charge your batteries every 400 km. When you do it fast the battery life will suffer, when you do it slow it takes to much time. So I keep saying: with current battery technolgy.............. This only could be a possibility when there would be stations to change your empty batteries for charged ones within minutes.

Claus Seibt, Transforming Mobilities's picture


I see it similar than the colleague before me already pointed at. The technolgy foresight or better prospective technology assessment is misleading. I the calculations technology is a
handled similar a ready.made, taken in ideal modules from the shelf. Life cycle costs and failure rates of such huge batteries are much higher than life cycle cost estmates of conventional cars with much smaller batteries.

Dominique De Munck's picture



It seems that the new Tesla Semi really proves the case of T&E, Hoekstra and others.
Some facts from the must-see presentation on https://livestream.tesla.com

1) Impressive specs: greater driving comfort, 800km range for a 36 ton truck at highway speeds (!), a lot more power; parallel charging at around 1.5MW which means you can cover 640km range after charing during 30minutes!

2) Netwerk of megachargers able to deliver solar electricity at a stunning price of $ 0.07 / kWh.
This will not be too far from the truth, since solar price can be delivered at around $ 0.03 /kWh.
Tesla produces solar paneles and the batteries for buffering (or they can reuse car/truck batteries), so they should be able to give a good price indication.
( Probably this is the case for more sunny states.
https://thinkprogress.org/stunner-lowest-price-solar-power-f3b620d04010/ )

3) This results in a presented TCO of an estimated 20% (!!!) less than normal Diesel, truck even in US with hardly any fuel taxes!

And one may criticise the delays of Tesla, 7 years after the launch of Model S, they still have the highest customer fidelity and no competitors in that segment.

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About the author

James Nix's picture

Manager, Freight